Part Three of the Fundamentals of Chinese American Funeral Customs covers Red Envelopes, Funeral Music and Processions, Lucky and Unlucky Numbers, and Celebration Days. This information was shared during classes at the 2016 ICCFA University College of International Studies.
Lycee – Red Envelopes
As attendees leave the funeral, family members hand each person a red envelope and a white envelope. The red envelopes hold paper money, the white envelopes hold a quarter and a piece of candy. The envelopes are respectfully presented with both hands, and the phrase, “I wish you good luck and good fortune.” The envelopes may hold $1 to $20 or more!
The red envelope is good luck to the person who gives and to the person who receives. The gesture is not a gratuity or tip. You never, ever refuse it. Not taking an envelope would be a grave insult.
The lobahn (the funeral home manager or owner) always gets a red envelope. Bob Yount, General Manager of Green Street Mortuary in San Francisco’s Chinatown, is generally at every funeral service. He discretely stands off to the side of the chapel. The family members recognize him, they bow, and a family member gives him a red envelope. Usually his envelope contains $50, $100 or more. The Benevolent Family Association president (see Part One) usually also gets a special red envelope.
Those organizations that can’t accept money will put the funds toward a charity. Bob Yount collects his envelopes, unopened. At the end of the year, the funeral home staff has a party at which they open all the envelopes. In 2015, he collected $2,700 which was donated to a local school and SCI, Green Street Mortuary’s parent company, matched his donation.
The white envelope holds a piece of candy and a quarter. You are expected to unwrap the candy and eat it. A funeral is a bitter day, so the candy provides some sweetness to help take the bitterness away. The red envelope is yours to keep. You’re encouraged to spend the quarter that day, to pass on good luck and good fortune to others.
Lucky and Unlucky Numbers
As discussed in a previous post, numerology has great influence over decisions. The luckiest numbers are 2 – because all good things come in pairs; 8 – it’s extremely lucky, and represents wealth and long life; and 9 – which is considered especially lucky, as it’s close to the word for “long-lasting.” All of the funeral home’s prices end in “88.”
The unluckiest number is 4, which means “all things death.” The number 6 is also avoided, because its meaning in Cantonese is to drop, fall, or decline. The Green Street Mortuary doesn’t have a chapel 4. They don’t list any prices ending in 4. They will adjust the cost of a funeral that has too many 4 in the total, or if it adds up to an unlucky number. The adjustment to a better combination of numbers is always in the family’s favor.
Funeral Music and Processions
The ancient Chinese practice of elaborate funeral processions has morphed into a modern practice. In ancient China, people carried tall vertical banners inscribed with the name of the deceased. After the banner bearers, a horse-drawn cart carried musicians playing traditional Chinese music. People would hear the music and come outside to learn who had died.
In 1945, Green Street Mortuary started offering a brass band to lead the procession from the funeral home through the streets of Chinatown. The procession, with the music and a photo car bearing a large image of the deceased, now serves the same function as the processions from ancient times – people will hear the music and look out their windows to see who died.
The Green Street Mortuary Band is a fixture in San Francisco. The procession includes the photo car, the hearse, and the family cars. Usually, the grand kids, nieces, and nephews ride along in the photo car. The photo car and the band do not go to the cemetery.
The procession often stops at the home or business of the decedent. The funeral director opens the back door of the hearse, exposing the casket. Family members get out of their vehicles, bow three times to the business or home, then get back in their vehicles to go on to the cemetery. At the end of the route through Chinatown, the procession stops, the family gets out and bows three times again.
At home, the family may hang a black wreath. When the procession stops at the home, the family will place the wreath on the casket. Someone will be stationed on the front porch or front steps burning incense.
Green Street Mortuary uses an average of four to eight motorcycle or automotive escorts to protect the integrity of the procession and control traffic, especially in congested neighborhoods and streets.
Chinese Burial Traditions
At the cemetery, individuals often place a flower on the casket in the grave. The family may turn their backs, bow their heads or turn away as the lid to the casket is closed at the funeral home. This is repeated at the cemetery as the casket is lowered into the ground. It’s bad luck to watch.
Buddhist monks or fung shui masters may be called upon to determine the best time to lower the casket into the ground. If the prescribed time can’t be met, it’s better to be early than late.
During the burial, the funeral directors incinerate the burning products in red metal barrels. The smoke represents the material goods being sent with the deceased as they start their journey to the Other World.
After the funeral and burial, there is often a post-funeral dinner. This is held out of respect to the decedent. Post-funeral meals offer more opportunities for family to share stories and their grief, and receive the support of their community.
There are two days of celebration for the dead: Ching Ming and Chung Yung. One is held in the spring, the other in the fall. The two are parallel.
It’s the Chinese equivalent of Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead celebration. The family brings Chinese food, music, firecrackers, and burning products to the cemetery. There’s chanting and incense burning, along with burning products to help deceased in the other world (see Part Two). In the Chinese community, it’s a very big deal.
Topics in Part One of The Fundamentals of Chinese American Funeral Customs: Benevolent Family Associations, the importance of flower arrangements, packing for the trip to the Other World, and funeral timing.
Topics in Part Two of The Fundamentals of Chinese American Funeral Customs: Visitation, Food Offerings, Blanketing Ceremony, Paper Burning Products, and Dress Code.
Many thanks to Bob Yount, General Manager of Green Street Mortuary in San Francisco’s Chinatown, who shared all of this great information!
Author Gail Rubin attended the 2016 ICCFA University College of International Studies thanks to a scholarship from Regions Bank.